1999 – Rip – ABOUT


Commissioned by W11 Opera in 1999

Synopsis: The story of Rip van Winkle, the man who falls asleep in the reign of George III and wakes up to George Washington and Independence, and whose extended sleep is both old-fashioned fairy tale and X-files combined, is a story of our time. Rapid social change from sleepy town to bustling urban sprawl, the roles of men and women, the reuniting of Rip with his son and a journey from indolence to insight are all themes of this story.

Composer Colin Towns  
Librettist Martin Newell
Music Director Dominic McGonigal
Soloists Rip Van Winkle, Dame Van Winkle, Wolf, Old Rip, Mr Van Der Klerk, Rip Junior
Groups Village and Town Gossips, Spirits, Maids, Washerwomen, Townspeople, Arapahoe, Blackfoot, Cherokee, Dakota
Orchestra Piano, Double Bass

Notes on Production: Based closely on Washington Irving’s classic story of Rip Van Winkle, Rip is a lively and magical, sometimes pantomimic look at American history (the librettist, Martin Newell, has skilfully introduced Native Americans into Irving’s tale) that would be well suited to use within the school curriculum.

Musically Rip is full of light and shade, contrasting paces and rich in traditional folk references which are counterbalanced by lyrical and mysterious passages. It has been scored simply for a piano, double bass and percussion accompaniment. Many of the solo lines could be split between groups or individuals depending on vocal strength. Dame Van Winkle sings some cod-operatic lines requiring a strong voice. The music is straightforward to learn for young singers.

Costumes should be more or less historically correct. In the original cast of 80 children, each member of the cast was given two parts – one in the first and one in the second act. Groups may be larger or smaller as required/desired.

Running time: Rip is one of the shorter W11 Opera commissions at under 60 minutes.


Act I

It is 1773 and we are in a small Dutch colonial town near the Hudson River. When the opera begins, it is the middle of the night and everyone is asleep. Gradually, the occupants of the town wake up (Prelude) and rush about getting ready for the day ahead; feeding the chickens, washing the children, and fetching water from the well (Buckets to the Well).

The grown-ups go off to work and the children trudge off miserably to school. One person, however, sleeps on: Rip Van Winkle is sleeping soundly in his huge four-poster bed until he is interrupted by his terrifying wife, Dame Van Winkle and their children Judith and Young Rip. The dame tears down his bed curtains and taunts Rip for ignoring his household duties (Dame Van Winkle’s First Tirade). She storms off, leaving Rip alone with his faithful dog Wolf, to reflect on the irrelevance of time in his life (Hours Gone By).

A group of young children suddenly run in, holding a kite. They have come to hear some of Rip’s fantastic stories (Kite-Flying). They are followed by a group of slightly older children who want to hear one of Rip’s scary stories (Witches). Finally, the oldest group of children enters and Rip tells all of the children about the Indian children who used to play near the Hudson River, but who now remain only as spirits. He teaches them a special dance (Indian Summer). Soon it is evening and as it grows dark, Rip sends the children home to their families (Hours Gone By 2).

In the town square, a young man is protesting about the new Tea Tax that the British have introduced to try to ruin the business of the Dutch settlers. Rip and his friends are not interested, however. Rip is telling them about his ill treatment by the Dame and his comments are passed from mouth to mouth. This has the effect of Chinese Whispers and by the time they reach the Dame on the other side of the Square, Rip’s rude comments have become great compliments (Chinese Whispers). The Dame waltzes off happily, dragging poor Rip with her. The village women watch him being dragged off and discuss how unfortunate he is (Poor Rip).

The action moves to a busy evening in Nicholas Vedder’s Tavern and Wolf the dog tells us about his unfortunate master as Rip walks on sadly. Rip’s friends try to cheer him up with their own sad stores and a rousing song (The Humbledbum Bird). Rip returns home and is greeted by a furious Dame who demands to know why he has been at the tavern all evening when their house is in a terrible state (Dame Van Winkle’s 2nd Tirade). He tries to protest his evidence, but it falls on deaf ears; she throws him out of the house.

Rip and Wolf embark on a long solitary walk into the Catskill Mountains as the sun sets for the day. They sing accompanied by the washer-women and spirits (High Flies the Raven). As Rip enters the forest at the top of the mountain, a strange figure approaches him. Wolf is terrified and runs away, but the stranger leads Rip into a magical forest. There the forest spirits, ghosts of the Indian children who lived there years before, lull Rip into a deep sleep (Sea of Dreams).

Act 2

It is once again the middle of the night in the same Dutch colonial town near the Hudson River (Interlude). As the town wakes up, however, we realise that there is something very different about it; the people and the buildings are unfamiliar. It is now 1793, twenty years later, and George Washington is now President of the newly independent America. Rip wakes up and discovers that he is now an old man. He wanders through the town bewildered as the villagers stare at him and wonder aloud what an old tramp is doing in their town (Bustling Village). They decide he must be a British spy, and he is hauled before the judge (The Interrogation). At first everyone laughs at him when he claims to be Rip Van Winkle, but Rip’s children Judith and Young Rip, now both grown up, recognise him. The judge is unconvinced and asks Rip to prove himself. At first hesitantly, Rip begins the steps to Indian Summer but soon everyone joins in and the realise that he is indeed Rip Van Winkle.

After the cheering has died down, Rip asks, “But where is my dame” and is told that she has been dead for several years. Rip admits that his wife wasn’t entirely bad and that he must have been a difficult husband (Poor Dame). Some of the villagers, including Rip’s grand-daughter Anais, are curios to know where he has been for all these years (Where was Rip?) and he tells them about his strange experience in the mountains (Sea of Dreams Reprise). Jonathan Doolittle, the new landlord of the tavern welcomes Rip to their new town as Wolf, now old and grey, enters with his son Young Wolf and is joyfully reunited with Rip. With Rip Van Winkle now firmly re-established in the town, everyone joins in another chorus of The Humblebum Bird.